Decline of the Muslim Empires: Ottomans, Safavids & Mughals

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  • 0:01 The Mughals
  • 1:53 The Safavids
  • 3:25 The Ottomans
  • 4:53 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

During the 15th and 16th centuries, the most powerful countries in the world weren't in Europe or East Asia, but in the Islamic World. This lesson explains how they went from greatness to ruin.

The Mughals

From the 16th to the 18th centuries, three great Islamic empires, known as the Gunpowder Empires, ruled much of Asia. The Mughal Empire had, at times, been the largest Islamic empire of its time, both in terms of geography and population. However, being based largely in India, not all of its subjects were Muslim. With tolerant rulers like Akbar the Great, this had been a strength. However, by the time of his great-grandson Aurangzeb, a man known for his fanatical devotion to a narrow interpretation of Islam, the Mughals were losing strength. More and more mediocre rulers followed Aurangzeb, meaning that even those who wanted to undo the damage were unable to do so. In fact, by the time Aurangzeb died, much of the Mughal Empire was in open revolt! This instability would become a theme of Indian rule from the death of Aurangzeb in 1707.

One of the groups that was able to seize on this chaos was the Maratha Confederacy. However, the Maratha were disorganized, meaning that they could never challenge the Mughals completely. In fact, even the British, upon their arrival in India, still treated the Mughal Emperor as the ceremonial ruler of India. However, that would change with the Sepoy Revolt of 1857. As native troops rebelled against the British, allegedly for forcing them to use bullets greased with animal fat forbidden for consumption by both Hindus and Muslims, the rebels used the Mughal Emperor as a rallying point. As a result, upon the British victory over the revolt, the last Mughal leader was dethroned.

The Safavids

The Safavids in Persia, too, faced problems from outsiders by the 17th century. However, unlike the Mughals, it wasn't just the British. While that country's merchants had begun to press commercial claims along the southern coast, the more immediate threat for Persia came from the north. There, a newly powerful Russia was expanding, having consolidated its rule in Central Asia. Now, the Persians' domains offered ample land for Russian invasion and expansion. This external pressure was coupled with the Safavids' continuing hostility towards the Ottoman Empire, largely about who should own Mesopotamia and the mountains of Armenia and Azerbaijan.

As if that weren't enough for the Safavids to have to contend with, the ruler of Iran, the Shah, was increasingly uninterested in government. Frankly, he would rather spend time in the palace, enjoying the company of musicians and the harem. Under the best of circumstances this would be problematic. However, a new threat was rising to the east, and not from the Mughals. Afghanistan had been a tribal society since the time of Alexander the Great, and when unified, those tribes sought an external enemy to raid. The Safavids presented the perfect opportunity and were weakened by Afghan raids to the point of allowing a new family, the Afshars, to take over power in Iran in 1736.

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